Last season might have been the fourth year that David de Gea won the prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, but it was the first where he didn’t win it by default.
He still performed well, of course, during the ‘dark years’ at Manchester United under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, but the bar was set considerably lower than before.
Last year was different, though. It seemed like any shot that came the Spaniard’s way was going to be stopped in its tracks. His arms and legs appeared to cover every inch of the goal. De Gea was, almost, unbeatable.
But, somehow, that freakish ability seems to have disappeared. The big question is why?
Big gloves to fill
Manchester United were indebted to de Gea during the 2017/18 campaign. His saves kept them in games time and time again. To even the most casual of fan it was clear the former Atlético Madrid stopper was saving the Red Devils an awful lot of points.
The numbers certainly back that up. José Mourinho’s side claimed 81 points last season in the Premier League, a more than respectable haul.
But with an average goalkeeper between the posts they’d have got just 64, according to Football Whispers’ model which simulates the matches 1000 times based on the shots their goalkeeper faced.
That difference of 17 points is, obviously, huge. Without them, instead of finishing second United would’ve finished fifth. There would’ve been no Champions League football for the Red Devils, their place in European football’s biggest competition taken by Chelsea.
Not all of that difference will have been down to De Gea – some of it could have been the attack’s doing and perhaps a little sprinkling of luck as well.
According to the Football Whispers model, United would have been expected to finish on around 72 points last term, even with the Spaniard on fire. His performances made it ten times more likely that they’d get an 81-point haul than if they’d had an average keeper, but the chance of that happening with De Gea was still only around ten per cent.
What this means is that even with De Gea on fire, United still might have been getting lucky defensively.
So what does this mean for this season?
With that in mind, we shouldn’t be expecting De Gea to completely match the results of last season, but the height from which his form may have fallen is actually lower than imagined.
There’s also a chance that the shots he’s faced this term are just harder to save for him than last season. Take, for example, the 3-1 defeat to West Ham United at the London Stadium last month.
Felipe Anderson's opener came from within the six-yard box. Andriy Yarmolenko’s second took an awful deflection on its route into the net. And Marko Arnautović’s third came after the Austrian had a straight run of goal before firing him from eight yards.
There is little De Gea could’ve done to stop any of the three strikes. And, tellingly, the Football Whispers model also looked at how many points United could be expected to have with last season’s version of the Spaniard in goal.
The answer was 13 – 13.6 to be precise – the same amount as the team have right now.
It’s worth adding that this season’s De Gea has still conceded fewer goals than he’d be expected to. Only 13 non-penalty goals have made their way past him, but the expected goals value of the shots on target that he’s faced has been 14.09.
So while he might not be quite as hot as last season, he’s not burning up on re-entry as he crashes back down to Earth either.